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Capsule reviews for films playing week of Nov. 19

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BODY OF LIES Despite Russell Crowe's shared marquee billing, this is really Leonardo DiCaprio's film, as the young thespian handles the part of Roger Ferris, a compassionate CIA point man working in the Middle East under the jaded eye of his ruthless superior (Crowe) back in the United States. Hoping to track down a bin Laden-like terrorist (a menacing Alon Aboutboul) responsible for a series of attacks on America and its allies, Ferris ends up traveling to Jordan and entering into a terse relationship with Hani Salaam (Stardust's Mark Strong), the head of Jordanian intelligence. The film's best scenes are between DiCaprio and Strong, as their characters alternate between working together and keeping each other at arm's length. Better than the vast majority of the post-9/11 terrorist yarns, Body of Lies is both more ambiguous and ambitious than such heavy-handed duds as Rendition and Redacted. Director Ridley Scott and The Departed's Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monaghan (working from David Ignatius' novel) refrain from merely putting Ferris and Hoffman through the good-cop-bad-cop routine: Ferris' idealism isn't always beneficial, while Hoffman might be a prick, but he occasionally exhibits more clarity than might be expected. And even a superfluous romance between Ferris and a Muslim nurse (Golshifteh Farahani) allows for some insight into societal disapproval for such a coupling, as the pair can't even shake hands in public. It's the extra attention to smaller details that gives this Body its necessary heft. ***

CHANGELING Like Mystic River and Flags of Our Fathers, Changeling is good, not great, Clint Eastwood, although as far as emotional resonance is concerned, the latest from the consummate director reverberates more strongly than either of those other features. A true story brought to the screen via an ambitious screenplay by J. Michael Straczynski, this stars Angelina Jolie as Christine Collins, a single mom whose only son (Gattlin Griffith) goes missing one afternoon in 1928. The Los Angeles Police Department, mired at the time in corruption, spots an opportunity to do something right and eventually reunites the mother with her boy. The only problem is that they bring back the wrong child, but rather than risk further embarrassment, a zealous captain (Jeffrey Donovan) decides to drown out Christine's protests by any means necessary, including labeling her as an unfit mother and having her locked up in a mental institution. Eastwood's stately picture slowly extends its reach, as various other plot elements circle the central story; while some suffer in the mix (John Malkovich, as a crusading reverend, could have benefited from more scenes), the overall result is a movie that will disappoint only those who require tidy endings wrapped up in pretty bows. Along the same lines, those who find fault with the brutish depiction of Christine's tormenters fail to grasp the patriarchy of the period (the story takes place a mere eight years after American women were given the right to vote). Jolie, on the other hand, understands this angle and aptly plays Christine as a woman whose frustrations with the system often match her fear for the safety of her child. ***

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY Any movie character who bears even the slightest resemblance to Robin Williams' insufferable Patch Adams deserves no less a fate than being simultaneously electrocuted and beheaded at film's end, yet here's writer-director Mike Leigh bucking the odds by bringing us such a person yet somehow keeping our collective wrath in check. Poppy (played by Sally Hawkins) is the eternal Pollyanna, a 30-year-old schoolteacher so chipper that, upon discovering her bike has been stolen, merely shrugs and states, "I didn't have a chance to say my goodbyes." To her friends, she evokes that familiar line from the theme song to The Mary Tyler Moore Show ("Who can turn the world on with her smile?"); to strangers, she's a baffling figure indeed, perhaps even psychotic. As in many Leigh pictures, including his two best ones (Secrets & Lies and Topsy-Turvy), narrative structure isn't nearly as important as character examination, and here that's a risky proposition, considering that spending so much time in the presence of such a live wire can lead to viewer irritation and exhaustion as much as it can evolve into acceptance and appreciation. But thanks to Leigh's lack of pretense and Hawkins' perfectly modulated performance, Happy-Go-Lucky eventually compels rather than repels, with some poignant encounters (chiefly between Poppy and her grouchy driving instructor, nicely played by Eddie Marsan) adding heft to what otherwise could have been dismissed out of hand as an airy confection. ***

MAX PAYNE Imagine The Constant Gardener after a frontal lobotomy, and that's basically Max Payne in a nutshell. The latest bomb based on a popular video game, this stars Mark Wahlberg as a New York cop who, years after the fact, is still solely obsessed with solving the murders of his wife and baby. It sounds like standard Death Wish fare; the picture even opens with Max luring three drug addicts into a subway restroom, then proceeding to inflict Payne – excuse me, pain – on them. But as in The Constant Gardener, a major pharmaceutical outfit figures into the proceedings, though it's safe to say that Ralph Fiennes never had to contend with winged demons flying all over the cityscape. That's not the case with Wahlberg, whose character also has to deal with invincible super-soldiers, a leggy druggie (Olga Kurylenko) and a career assassin (a miscast Mila Kunis) who's about as menacing as a Scooby-Doo plush doll. Rather than focusing on making a kick-ass action flick (presumably what fans of the video game would crave), director John Moore and novice scripter Beau Thorne dress up their simplistic revenge yarn with various twists and turns – all of which are absurdly easy to predict (if the revelation of the piece's final villain surprises you, you really need to add more mysteries to your moviegoing diet). Yet even when they do get around to the shootouts and fisticuffs, they prove to be flagrantly opportunistic, rehashing both The Matrix and the John Woo oeuvre to diminishing returns. Incidentally, stay through the final credits to see the coda that promises a sequel. My bet is that it will star Donnie Wahlberg instead of Mark and debut directly on DVD. *

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